Panama: Welcome to Central America
I’m not entirely sure where to start with Panama.
As my very first experience of Central America, it threw me and Chris a few curve balls that we weren’t quite expecting.
First off, our flight from Colombia to Panama City landed in an old, disused American military airbase.
For reasons I’m not sure of, Colombia’s budget airline (Viva Colombia) has made this place it’s home, rather than Panama City’s main airport in the middle of the city.
When I say main airport, I mean every single other airline lands there. Just not Viva Colombia.
Yet we saved heavily on cost which we were pretty pleased about and the short taxi ride to the city was without any problems.
The only inconvenience was the queue at Panamanian customs – clearly this airstrip isn’t that used to a high volume of people being processed all at once.
Our initial thoughts on Panama City were quite mixed.
Instantly I noted that the people seemed to be much less welcoming than what we’d become used to in Colombia.
Many of our questions or inquiries for directions to shop owners or people on the street were greeted with grunts, short snappy answers or completely shut us down.
The city itself is yet another classic story of the haves and have nots. The Americans have influenced the city heavily after building the canal and that influence has remained.
In the centre, there are huge Singapore-esque high rises while further out (and closer to our hostel) we found older buildings and people clearly grafting for their living.
We spent our time visiting the canal – a beautiful piece of engineering but really not a spectator sport – where we saw two different boats pass through the lock system.
We also took out some bikes to cycle down a peninsula that has been created solely from the dirt that was dug up when putting in the canal system.
We didn’t linger too long and I dare say I won’t be rushing back to Panama City.
Our next stop was the small, and beautiful, town of Boquete.
Boqeuete is another strange place but we warmed to it instantly.
Voted the 4th best place in the world to retire, it has seen a huge influx of Americans buying up land and property which has turned it into a mini-American town.
Most of the shops and restaurants have American owners and Chris even said the main square could be many of the country towns he’s already seen in the States.
But we enjoy these types of places, tucked away up near the mountains – and we were here to hike.
Only this time we decided to bolt on some horse riding for good measure – a trip that would be Chris’ first time on a horse.
Day one was spent completing two different hikes both in close proximity to one another.
The first, the Pipeline Trail, was reportedly the best opportunity for us to spot the quetzcal bird. An iconic bird in Central America and revered around the world as one of the most beautiful.
Alas without the expert ear and local knowledge of where on the trail to spot them, we didn’t see any.
Yet the hike was great and the waterfall at it’s climax was worth the effort.
The second hike was to three more waterfalls. It took plenty of our energy to climb up to each one individually but again we were glad we took the time to visit.
The next morning, with bellies full of fish tacos and fries from Big Daddy’s American grill the night before, we woke to set off on our horseback adventure.
Our Honduran-born guide picked us up and took us out to the ranch where he keeps the horses.
We’d be riding over some stunning countryside up in the hills with the chance of spotting plenty of local wildlife. This was multiplied when our guide told us that he used to work closely with birds and butterflies so knew all the calls and plenty of information for when the animals were close.
We were handed a horse each. Mine, named Shaggy (for reasons unknown), while being the shortest in the stable, liked to assert his authority and be at the front of the group. If any other horse tried to overtake (other than the guide), then he’d kick into a little run to make sure he stayed ahead – something I was to find out a few times during the day.
Chris was given a big, burly horse that was happy to plod along at his own pace but also enjoyed teasing the other horses when he got the chance.
We took our time on the ride, taking in the countryside and learning plenty about Panama and it’s animals.
Our guide gave us chance to have a gallop on the horses and then turned them around again for a second (and third) attempt.
The day was complete when, as we were riding back to the ranch, our guide spotted and showed us a toucan sat on the branch of a nearby tree.
Toucans are really special birds to see and, after spotting one in Minca, this was only our second that we’d seen.
We made our way back to Minca where we were bound for the islands of Bocas Del Toro. And yet again, another little mountain town had left us with nothing but good words to say – certainly a hug plus point after the disappointment of Panama City.